A room with a view: One man’s fight to save the ‘Taj Mahal of Morristown’

Issa Oweis says this view from his Vail Mansion condo will be obscured by a four-story apartment building. June 14, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Issa and Randa Oweis were among the first couples to buy a condo when the Vail Mansion opened its residential wings in 2008.

They looked forward to peacefully living out their lives on South Street.

‘WE’LL SEE WHAT HAPPENS.’ Issa Oweis, a civil engineer, says he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle to reduce to the height of a neighboring project. June 14, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Downsizing from a home in Long Valley, they loved the Vail mansion’s proximity to Morristown restaurants, shops and the Mayo Performing Arts Center. They especially loved the view from their third-floor living room: Billowing trees and, in the distance, the steeple of Assumption Church.

But a developer is poised to obscure that view with a four-story apartment building that local historians say is out of character with the historic Vail setting.

Rendering of proposed 126 South St. apartments, June 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Now, Issa Oweis, 77, is fighting to save what he calls the “Taj Mahal of Morristown.”

He has hired a lawyer and a planner to oppose the project, which is scheduled to return to the planning board in a special virtual meeting this Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Oweis expects he will lose. He’s up against interests with deeper pockets than his own.

Windows of a proposed apartment building here would jut two feet over the boundary of the Vail Mansion condo association. June 14, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

And he is going it alone. He says his 36-member condo association cut a $100,000 deal with the developers, granting them access to the Vail driveway during construction, and permission for apartment windows to jut over the property line, in return for a minor re-configuration of the project.

(Association President Jack Plaxe declined to confirm or deny such an agreement.)

Yet Oweis feels he must give it a try.

“We’ll make our case and see what happens,” says the civil engineer, who feels his quality of life is getting bulldozed.

‘IT’S A RUSE’

South Street Morristown Holdings LLC wants to wrap an L-shaped complex around and behind the former Susi’s Salon, at 126-136 South St. The proposed apartments would abut the driveway of the Vail Mansion.

Rendering of apartments proposed for 126 South St., next to the Vail Mansion, June 2021.Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

The original mansion, an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo built by an AT&T magnate during World War I, now is home to the posh Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen.

Condos were attached on either side in the 2000s. Issa and Randa Oweis say they paid $1 million for their 2,000-square-foot, two-bedroom unit.

The Vail Mansion in Morristown.

The one-acre property next door is zoned for a maximum of 30 apartments. The developers wanted 40, and now are asking for 39.

They may get their wish, through a less-is-more quirk in the town’s zoning code. It awards a “density bonus” of 10 more units for tracts of less than one acre.

EXHIBIT B: Poster shows area of proposed pocket park. Presented at Morristown planning board virtual meeting, Jan. 14, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Earlier this year, the developers proposed gifting 652 square feet of lawn in front of Susi’s to the town for a “pocket park.”

Shaving off those patches would bring the property below the magic one-acre cutoff for the density bonus.

But that maneuver would entail a trip to the town zoning board, a potentially costly and time-consuming journey.

Instead, the developers now are offering the lawn as a right-of-way to the state Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over South Street. Such a gift is not subject to town approvals.

“It’s a ruse,” says Oweis.

If the DOT wanted to expand South Street, it would need to obtain rights-of-way from many property owners.

DOT spokesman Stephen Schapiro would not discuss the pending application, except to say, “The review generally takes a few months.”

Town Planner Phil Abramson addresses Morristown planning board, Nov. 5, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

While the proposed gift offer to the DOT  “wasn’t anticipated,” the developers’ attempt to qualify for the density bonus is within the spirit of the town zoning code, according to town Planner Phil Abramson.

The bonus is intended to encourage re-use or improvement of small downtown parcels, he says.

“The idea was to allow flexibility for parcels one acre or less. The one is like 800 square feet above the lot size.  So in that regard, this project remains in the spirit of the code.  Getting there via right of way dedication wasn’t anticipated, but the larger project is consistent with the concept.”

RICH FIGHTING THE RICH?

Frank Vitolo, attorney for the developers, has told the planning board his clients have met numerous times with Vail condo residents, and made many revisions, in hopes of satisfying them.

OPPOSITE SIDES: Attorneys Frank Vitolo, left, representing 126-136 South St. developers, and Vail condo attorney Martin Cabalar, at Morristown planning board virtual hearing regarding, Jan. 14, 2021. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

Concessions to historical preservationists include preserving the Susi’s Salon building, he testified.

Oweis says he’s not against having new neighbors–he’s an engineer who has raised three children thanks to construction projects. But he maintains this project should fit the neighborhood, which sits in an historic district.

Fewer apartments, and placing a proposed ground-level parking garage underground to lower the project’s height, would be a good start, Oweis says.

The view of Assumption Church from the Oweis condo at the Vail Mansion. An apartment building soon may obscure the vista. June 14, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

People should not write this off as a battle of affluent NIMBYs vs. wealthy developers, he insists.

“It’s not the rich fighting the rich… People in the mansion are not filthy rich. They are retirees who invested their hard-earned money in their units.”

And the Vail lawn and reflecting pool are treasures for all to enjoy–the town’s Taj Mahal, he says.

Oweis has some allies.

“This is a tortured plan defined by an attempt to make maximum real estate use of an unusual U-shaped property,” writes Ken Miller, chairman of the town Historic Preservation Commission.

“It would do irreversible damage to the Vail greenspace, exceed the character-defining building height along South Street by two stories, and introduce yet another intrusive driveway on South Street,” he says in a letter to the board.

Former planning board Chairwoman Kathleen Duane contends the project, as proposed, “will negatively impact all of the surrounding properties, especially the residents of the beautiful Vail Mansion project.

“I’ve never seen an application for a proposed building so obviously shoehorned onto a piece of property like this one…The lot appears to have been cobbled together for this project and the contorted configuration of the structure is proof of that misguided effort,” Duane says in a letter to the town.

INTRICATE WEB

A glance at the roster in this passion play suggests the long odds facing Oweis, and the intricate web of personalities that is Morristown.

Partners in South Street Morristown Holdings LLC include Eric Witmondt and Carl Goldberg — who were principals in the companies that built the Vail Mansion condos.

Also: Philanthropist Finn Wentworth and David Welsh, co-founders of Normandy Real Estate Partners.

Site of proposed development at 66 Maple Ave. in Morristown. Built in the 19th century, this structure–targeted for demolition–until recently housed professional offices.

A block from the Vail Mansion, Wentworth and his neighbors have been fighting a development they say threatens the historic character of Maple Avenue.

Welsh, meanwhile, serves on the board of the Vail Mansion’s other neighbor, the Mayo Performing Arts Center, alongside Tom Jardim — who is Oweis’ lawyer in this case.

And Abramson, the town planner, worked with Vitolo, the developers’ lawyer, on the Abbey redevelopment in Morris Township.

None of this will deter Oweis, a self-made man from a very poor family in Jordan, according to his daughter, Luma Oweis.

Her father scrimped to afford an education in the United States, earning a doctorate at the University of Texas-Austin and becoming an expert in geotechnical engineering.

That field involves analyzing and designing foundations for structures. His Texas research was funded by NASA, for the lunar landing, says Issa Oweis, a naturalized Dallas Cowboys fan and U.S. citizen.

Looking out over the Vail Mansion lawn, June 14, 2021 A four-story apartment building is proposed along the boundary to the left. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

He has worked extensively across the Middle East and the United States, doing  earthquake engineering in California and a pump station at the World Trade Center. He met his future wife, Randa, when she attended the United Nations World Youth Assembly as a Palestinian delegate.

In the 1970s, Issa Oweis expanded into the field of geo-environmental engineering, working on cleanups of Meadowlands landfills. He has authored a textbook, and edited a geotechnical manual for the Navy.

In 2004, he retired as president of Converse Consulting to become chief engineer for his daughter’s Morristown startup, Oweis Engineering Inc., which has done projects from the metro area to Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica and Russia.

“He’s worked his whole life,” says Luma Oweis, who serves on the Morristown Housing Authority.

“He’s an honest person. He always does the right thing, and he expects everyone to do the right thing. That’s how we were brought up: Don’t cheat. Don’t cut corners. Don’t lie. And he expects everyone to do the same.”

This story has been updated to include a comment from the state DOT.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. OVERDEVELOPED?? TOO INTENSE? ??? As more and more residents express disappointment with the NCREASING DENSITY in our town, let’s give credit where credit is due. The mayor now running for his 4th term seems very proud of all the development as is his planner who supports all the proposed developments. Some question the mayor’s financial gain. I don’t know about this, but I also have concerns about his unending support of the way our town has changed over the last 12 Years of his being Mayor. Remember this when you vote! Quotes follow from two town residents, (the caps are mine)……Marge Brady…”density along that portion of South Street is already at capacity. The attempt to twist a loophole in the zoning ordinance, never intended for a site like this does not only serve to permit developers to increase their wealth at the expense of the community. When the Planner specializes in creating development and then applies those standards, He is Not Serving the Town. ” Jamest. “If you have Money, you can literally Do Anything in This Town, the Outcomes are Predetermined, the Corruption is Baked In and favored by folks of both party affiliations”

  2. If you have money, you can literally do anything in this town, like building office space while work from home trends make that sound incredibly silly. It’s barely even worth covering any of this as news, the outcomes are predetermined, the corruption is baked in and favored by folks of both party affiliations.

    It’s amazing that anyone that drives with regularity down south st. can watch this and think the whole traffic situation isn’t already a total mess.

  3. The sell off or ‘donation’ of land to get under an acre is a total scam.
    Whats the allowable number of stories? How can this be approved when they just denied similar variances for the building in the middle of downtown on Dehart?

  4. I find it very entertaining to hear arguments regarding the historical significance of Vail Mansion from folks sitting in the comfort of their million dollar condos on the same property that also houses a bar and restaurant and has a public parking lot in their front yard. Luxury condos for me but not for thee!!

  5. The density along that portion of South Street is already at capacity. The attempt to twist a loophole in the zoning ordinance, never intended for a site like this does only serves to permit developers to increase their wealth at the expense of the community. When the planner specializes in creating development and then applies those standards, he is not serving the town .

  6. Kevin, do you have a rendering and site plan for the proposed project? I was under the impression it was an expansion of the current footprint as well as being taller. It may help readers understand the true impact.

  7. There is a vacant building where this apartment building is proposed. I get the height argument– but it’s not like its a forest some developer is taking down for this building. There already is something there, which is now empty and abandoned! What would people rather have?? I don’t get it..

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